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Tiny drones deploy for US allies

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Sergeant Scott Weaver, of The Queens Royal Lancers launches a Black Hornet, Nano UAV from a compound in Afghanistan. ((Sergeant Rupert Frere RLC, Crown Copyright/MOD 2013))

Black Hornet, the next generation of tiny combat drones, has arrived.

Norway’s Prox Dynamics PD-100 Black Hornet Block II Personal Reconnaissance System is a tiny drone helicopter that can fit into the palm of your hand. The company says it is the world’s smallest operational unmanned air system.

It may look like a toy remote control helicopter on the wish list of kids young and old, but it’s serious combat tech. Black Hornet is about four inches long and one inch wide. And this little guy is astonishingly light. It only weighs just over half an ounce - that’s like the weight of three sheets of paper.

The entire system, including two Black Hornets, a base station that can fit in your back pocket, a controller and a screen, weighs under three pounds.

How does it work?

There’s no assembly required. As soon as you take it out of box, it is ready to go and can reach top speeds of about 10 miles per hour. Its tiny size and speed are a key advantage because it makes the drone far more difficult for an enemy to detect.

Despite its size, the Black Hornet can spend approximately 30 minutes in the air. The operator can pilot it, but you can also plug in the GPS coordinates and the drone can fly itself using auto-pilot.

The drone has built-in GPS, internal sensors and more. The system is very easy to operate - similar to using an Xbox or PlayStation. The basic training course to become a Black Hornet operator takes only two days.

Given its tiny size and lightweight, the company says that Black Hornet does not pose a threat to other aircraft.

What is it used for?

Black Hornet is a very sophisticated military tool with three cameras tucked into a very small unit – a pretty impressive engineering feat.

On missions, Black Hornet can travel about three quarters of a mile and provide real-time live motion video back to the operator. It can also take HD photos. The tiny drone is extremely quiet and difficult to spot when it’s travelling at speed, making it very handy for stealthy information gathering.

During deployments in Afghanistan for example, the British Army uses Black Hornet to investigate terrain and locate snipers.

While it has been mostly deployed by forces in rural and rugged terrains, it can also be useful for built up urban settings as well. Black Hornet’s quiet noise profile provides a key advantage getting very close to its target remaining undetected.

How is the latest Black Hornet improved?

As you’d expect by its name, Black Hornet's design was inspired by insects.  The early models were built in a way that looked more like insects than mini helicopters.

The latest Black Hornet, the PD-100 Block II, looks almost identical to the first one, but also incorporates big advances inspired by the feedback from forces.  From the sensors to the flight capability, lots of aspects have been improved such as extending the drone’s range, making it faster and even more effective.

Very popular with warfighters, the British military has reportedly invested more than $30 million on Black Hornets to support operations.

Beyond deploying for combat, Black Hornet can be useful for law enforcement, providing urgent situational awareness and search and rescue.  Humanitarian organizations have also found it useful for providing information on areas where they are working to keep their aid workers safe.

Each Black Hornet has a hefty price tag of $30,000 to $50,000, making it a very expensive toy for civilian enthusiasts.